Sunday, March 30, 2014
Pondering the Cosmically Great and Small
Pondering the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence is probably one of my most reoccurring subjects I like to quietly think about as I watch the evening news. Yes, that is a backhanded insult at the usual array of semi-psychotic individuals both in politics specifically and out among the greater mass of humanity in general. Humans have been playing a glorified children's game of dominance, and calling it civilization, for around five-thousand years with only the most tenuous examples of advancement.
See for the longest time I have openly doubted that Homo sapiens are in fact an intelligent species. The examples for that assumption include George W. Bush, Vlad Putin, Assad in Syria, and numerous others both great and small. In my own circle of acquaintances I could list about a half dozen people who I find both horrifying and outrageously funny because of their statements and observable behavior. Yes again, I have long since come to the conclusion that I am a bit of a snob in some respects.
However, as I mentioned I like to ponder the existence of intelligent life out in the depths of space and what it would mean if by chance their radio transmissions were detected or, and this probability is microscopically small, they decided to stop and visit our little planet. See, like most people lacking a formal education in such things as evolutionary biology I came to think of extraterrestrial intelligence in terms presented in Star Trek, or any number of other science fiction venues. No, I'm not talking about meeting aliens that look just like humans, I know enough about evolution to understand that is beyond pure fantasy. What I'm talking about is encountering an alien civilization that is on equal terms with humanity in both intelligence and technology.
I vaguely remember Carl Sagan, in the original Cosmos television series, talking about how if two aliens civilizations did in fact encounter each other the odds were overwhelming that one of would be far more advanced than the other. While this is in no way a quote he went on to say that any conflict or “star wars” would be terribly one sided. I was a preteen at the time so his statement on the subject pretty much went into one ear and out the other.
It wasn't until I recently stumbled across the video where Neil deGrasse Tyson explains the situation even further that it finally hit home. In short he brings up our nearest evolutionary relatives, the chimpanzees, and how our respective genetic codes are exactly alike in the high ninety-percent range. But what difference that exists in our DNA means that humans can build space telescopes, ponder and test abstract concepts like quantum physics, create music and literature. All the while our chimp cousins are restricted to using sticks and rocks as tools. This is not a slam on chimps, behaviorally speaking our family relationship shows through with them known to commit both wonderful acts of generosity and terrible actions like individual murder and war between different groups.
You can probably guess where this dovetails back to aliens. It doesn't take much to realize that an alien species only a tiny bit more intelligent than humans would have an extraordinarily difficult time trying to relate concepts to us that they take for granted. As much as I have been impressed with videos showing primates communicating in American sign language I can't imagine them learning anything about how to build or maintain a laser, solve differential equations, or understand the metaphors in some poem.
It's both a little depressing and exciting to realize that there could be facets to the universe that humans just cannot grasp. That there could be some basic component to reality staring us in the proverbial face that we miss entirely.
This begs several questions to be asked. The first is what good is our current efforts to detect extraterrestrial civilizations by listening for interstellar radio transmissions? We could be waiting for smoke signals when everyone in our, relatively speaking, local area of the galaxy is communicating through gravity waves, pulsed lasers transmissions, or some real version of science fiction's subspace. The next question is whether or not aliens have tried to contact us but we're simply aren't smart enough to receive or understand what they are trying to say. Please understand I am not including idle and mostly ignorant speculation about UFO's. Those waters have been thoroughly muddied to the point any real discussion is doomed to descend into abductions and anal probing. Present an alien that can be checked openly by experts, a piece of metal made of an element unknown to science, or technology that defies our current understanding and then I will consider the option.
But the basic point remains just what would a slightly more advanced species say to us? Taking the question one step further would they even want to try? Not to backtrack, and beat an already dead horse, but what if some alien species is orders of more intelligent than us that we are to an earthworm or cockroach? Would they even register our existence if we somehow got in their way?
Check out the Tyson and Dawkins video I mentioned: